The Miliband-Blair war of words is a preview of bigger battles to come

If Labour unity has largely held since the election it is because Miliband has chosen to postpone almost all policy decisions.

Tony Blair's dramatic intervention in the centenary edition of the New Statesman (180 pages, out now) leads several of today's papers (the Independent and the Times have splashed on it), with some of the former prime minister's key allies taking the opportunity to air their own concerns about the party's direction under Ed Miliband. The increasingly outspoken Peter Mandelson tells the Independent: "Tony is saying what he has always thought – that the old dividing lines between the uncaring Conservative cuts and Labour spending has got to be redrawn for new times.

"I suspect the two Eds realise this. Their call for One Nation is the right starting point, but there are major structural challenges and choices facing Britain and Labour must consider the difficult changes and reforms needed to address them."

Alan Milburn, Blair's former health secretary, adds: "The closer the election comes, people will stop asking Labour what it is against. They will want to know what Labour is for and what, if elected, it would do. Tony Blair is right to argue that the sooner that process begins in earnest, the better."

One suspects that Miliband, who wasted no time in shrugging off Blair's warning not to "tack left on tax and spending", will be unfazed by their words. Both Mandelson and Milburn are no longer MPs, of course, and have little sway over today's Parliamentary Labour Party. But Blair's intervention and the response to it offers a preview of bigger battles to come. It's often said that Labour is more united now than at any point in recent history but this ignores the fact that there's been little to be disunited about.

Miliband's "blank sheet of paper" is gradually being filled but the Labour leader has chosen to postpone almost all policy decisions until 2014-15. Even when he proposes a new measure such as the reinstatement of the 10p tax rate, or the introduction of a "mansion tax", Miliband is careful to emphasise that these are examples of what Labour would be doing were it in power now, not manifesto commitments. The same applies to the party's five point plan for jobs and growth, the 50p tax rate, benefits uprating and just about every policy area Miliband has touched on since becoming leader.

But at some point before the election, he will need to decide where he really stands. Will Labour, for instance, pledge to stick to the coalition's spending limits for the early years of the new parliament (as Labour did with the Tories' in 1997) our outline its own alternative plan? What will the balance of tax rises to spending cuts be? Will he propose cuts to the welfare budget or allow the burden to fall entirely on public services? Will he pledge to keep Michael Gove's "free schools"? How far will he go in reversing the coalition's NHS reforms? Will he retain the £26,000 benefit cap? 

Liberated from office, Blair enjoys the luxury of posing questions without answering them (although NS editor Jason Cowley has a go in today's Times) but Miliband does not. And once he begins to set out his stall, Labour unity could quickly begin to fray. Recall the tumult that followed Ed Balls's declaration of support for the public sector pay freeze and Labour's decision to abstain on the workfare bill (a move that prompted a rebellion by 44 backbenchers). As one Labour MP recently told me, a pledge to make further cuts to public spending (as the party will surely do) would make such rows "look like a tea party". For this reason, among others, David Cameron and George Osborne will continue to appear unreasonably cheerful. Most of their tough decisions are behind them; Labour’s are all still to come.

Tony Blair talks with Ed Miliband during a Loyal Address service to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at Westminster Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.